News Focus | The dangerous beauty of Natimuk's rock climbing destination, Mt Arapiles

Keith Lockwood at his Natimuk home, with Mt Arapiles in the background. Picture: JADE BATE
Keith Lockwood at his Natimuk home, with Mt Arapiles in the background. Picture: JADE BATE

FOR more than 50 years, Mt Arapiles has been a popular destination for rock climbers from around the world.

However, a high number of climbers ascending the steep rock face comes with a high number of accidents.

Over the years, many groups – primarily made up of experienced rock climbers from the Natimuk area – have been formed to tackle rescues at the mountain.

The most notable of these was the Arapiles Rescue Group, which was formed in the early 1990s.

Former member Keith Lockwood has been an avid rock climber for more than 50 years. The Natimuk resident literally wrote the book on Mt Arapiles. 

In fact, he’s written two books about the mountain that looms over his hometown – a rock climbing guidebook and a coffee table book.

The experienced guide said the mountain had been discovered as a rock climbing destination in 1963.

“It’s still a hugely popular destination for climbers and it will remain so as long as the sport is popular,” he said. 

“It’s considered the best crag in Australia without a doubt; it’s world class. The mountain provides climbers with an immense variety of grades and routes.”

Mr Lockwood said he started doing rescues as a teenager.

“The first rescue I was involved in, I was only a 15-year-old lad,” he said.

“We rescued a young woman who fell from The Bluff; she had hurt her knees and we had to climb up to her. Using a stretcher we hauled her down, hand over hand. It was a primitive rescue, but quite successful.”

He said the ARG was formed after a series of climbing deaths across Victoria in the early 1990s.

“There was a coronial inquest and I was involved as an expert witness,” he said.

“One of the recommendations was that the climbers should regulate themselves.

“That’s when the Climbing Instructors Association was formed to set standards for professional guides.

“It’s now called the Australian Climbers Association and they run regular training camps and courses at Mt Arapiles.

“The Coroner also recommended that an efficient rescue group of some kind should be established.”

The Arapiles Rescue Group was then formed under the umbrella of the State Emergency Service, made up primarily of local rock climbers.

EXPERIENCE: Natimuk resident Keith Lockwood with a photo of himself climbing Mt Arapiles in the 1970s. Mr Lockwood has been a rock climber for more than 50 years. Picture: JADE BATE

EXPERIENCE: Natimuk resident Keith Lockwood with a photo of himself climbing Mt Arapiles in the 1970s. Mr Lockwood has been a rock climber for more than 50 years. Picture: JADE BATE

“That was a very important link because it provided coverage for us – we weren’t just a bunch of amateurs doing their own thing – and it also provided equipment and training,” he said.

“We completed a great deal of successful rescues both here and in the Grampians, and did so for many years. That was until recent times when the SES decided we needed external training and had to be legitimised in some sort of formal way.

“That’s when everything got a little too hard and the group started to disintegrate. It’s a bit of the shell now and it does need reform.”

We weren’t interested in the bureaucracy of it, we just wanted to help.

Natimuk resident and former ARG member Iain Sedgman

Natimuk resident, experienced rock climber and former ARG member Iain Sedgman has documented rescues for decades.

He also collects data on accidents from every mountain used for rock climbing in Australia, as well as incidents of Australians being injured while rock climbing overseas.

“I’ve kept data since 1974,” he said.

“I also wrote a paper a while back about all the climbing incidents in Australia between 1955 and 2004.”

As of 2018, there have been 12 recorded deaths of rock climbers at Mt Arapiles. The most recent death was a 35-year-old Melbourne man in the King Rat Cliff area in 2014.

“As of 2004, there had been 67 records of accidents at Mt Arapiles, but that number would have risen significantly; I’m aiming to update my data into a summary very soon,” he said.

“The Arapiles Rescue Group participated in 35 rescues during that time period, which equates to about half of all rescues.”

Mr Sedgman said the group had worked extremely well together and had a great success rate.

“We weren’t interested in the bureaucracy of it, we just wanted to help,” he said.

“The group was backed by the SES and we did things differently. We’d abseil to get to someone in a hurry using one rope, while the SES requires two ropes.”

He said the ideal rescue team for Mt Arapiles would be made up of professional rock climbers.

“Professional rock climbers can get to places more quickly and safely,” he said.

“It’s so important to get that vital aid to someone quickly. If I was stuck on the mountain, I would prefer to be recused by a group of climbers.”

He said the group started to dissolve “in a big way” a few years ago.

“It was working well and we had a great track record, but they blew it and it lost them the support of a lot of experienced rock climbers,” he said.

“The climbers know the routes and know the quickest way to get to someone. 

“I’ve been told that people can’t help out if they haven’t done a course, which has caused a lot of angst in the climbing community.”